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While there's plenty of debate to be had on McChrystal, we mustn't expect too much debate over McChrystal's strategy.


Analyzing the potential outcomes of Gen. Stanley McChrystal's termination, COINdinista extraordinaire Andrew Exum concludes that:

In the end, your opinion on whether or not Gen. McChrystal should be dismissed might come down to whether or not you think the current strategy is the correct one for the war in Afghanistan. My own prediction is that Gen. McChrystal will be retained. As much as critics of counterinsurgency like to blame Gen. McChrystal (and nefarious think-tankers, of course) for the current strategy, the reality is that the civilian decision-makers in the Obama Administration conducted two high-level reviews in 2009 and twice arrived at a national strategy focused on conducting counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan. I suspect the president will not replace the man he has put in charge of executing that strategy with just 12 months to go before we begin a withdrawal.

I suspect Exum is probably correct, but I don't know that one's position on COIN must necessarily determine their verdict on the general. Frankly, I read the Rolling Stone piece, and I found most of the stuff - while no doubt in violation of some military etiquette regulations - to be somewhat benign; the kind of water cooler griping that goes on inside every organization. Of course McChrystal erred in his media judgment, and I'm agnostic really on his fate, but I don't know, as Exum notes, if firing him makes sense while the country is so invested in his strategy.

And that's really the problem here. As Spencer Ackerman rightly points out, there's a kind of irony to this whole hubbub: while there's plenty of debate to be had over McChrystal, we mustn't expect too much debate over McChrystal's strategy. The White House has already reiterated its commitment to COIN in Afghanistan, and that, to me, is the end of the story. Though I take more of a realisty position on the war there, I don't know that demanding my pound of flesh makes much of a difference here.

Exum mistakenly assumes that anti-COIN = anti-McChrystal, but I think any critic of COIN would expect these kinds of internal flareups and frustrations when one country attempts to occupy and subsequently engineer the society of another. Power struggles; civilian vs. military personnel; arguments with the host government; bruised egos and hurt feelings over leaked memos and misplaced quotes; etc. This stuff seems par for the course.

Were there an actual debate about options in Afghanistan, then maybe you'd see more of an analytical uprising from the anti-COIN camp, but that debate had already been settled by COIN advocates long ago. Take this argument from Blake Hounshell, for example:

The thing is, though, it's not as if there is a viable alternative strategy out there. For years, the U.S. more or less tried Vice President Joe Biden's preferred approach of keeping a light footprint and limiting U.S. military operations to going after bad guys, while de-emphasizing nation building. That didn't work either. So I think it's worth giving COIN more time to succeed, whether or not McChrystal is the man implementing it.

There are actually a multitude of options in Afghanistan, but none of them will ever appear viable so long as we cling to an amorphous definition of "victory" there. To my recollection, what the Bush administration did in Afghanistan was not at all "light footprint," but rather, under-resourced occupation. They wanted to keep troop casualties low, but they also wanted to pacify the country. They pushed for elections, but then provided no sustainable security arrangement to actually guarantee a democratic Kabul's legitimacy.

This policy - which even the Bush administration would later scrutinize - is not what Biden had proposed last fall. His suggestion was to contain Afghan radicalism, draw down forces and continue drone strikes on militant targets throughout the greater Af-Pak region. If you support such a strategy (as I do, albeit reluctantly), then you certainly aren't concerned about dressing Afghanistan up as a functional democracy, because it clearly isn't one.

But critics can't live in a counterfactual dream world where the White House actually engages the public in a serious debate over the War on Terror, because that moment has passed. While we all question the job security of one general, we should at least, in fairness, congratulate the COINdinistas for what appears to be a vise-like grip on U.S. foreign policy thinking.

(AP Photo)